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A Walk In the Dark

It was time to call the police again. Robert Jeangerard had been missing for eight hours on May 19, long enough for his wife, Margie, to realize that this was not one of those times he would find his way home on his own. Since the first signs of Alzheimer's appeared seven years ago, he often wandered from their house in the San Francisco suburb of San Carlos on impromptu walkabouts, but he always turned up, even if it occasionally took the cops to track him down. The police had found him before, Margie told herself. They would find him again.

When the officers arrived, Margie gave them a picture of Robert and his description—6'4", 175 pounds, a former basketball player still trim and fit at 75. He had the stamina to walk for hours. Before long the police had called for more manpower, along with a bloodhound. "They also sat me down and insisted I call my daughter, which I didn't want to do," she says. "I wanted to wait until I had good news."

Last week, as she told the story of Robert's disappearance, Margie sorted through some of his memorabilia. There were programs and rosters from his days as a high-scoring forward for Colorado, which he helped lead to its only Final Four, in 1955, and mementos from international tournaments such as the '59 Pan American Games, in which he won a gold medal playing with Oscar Robertson.

There is another gold medal, kept in a safe deposit box. It is the one he earned at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, where he suited up for the U.S. alongside Bill Russell and K.C. Jones. Those two went onto greater basketball fame with the Celtics, but it was Jeangerard (GENE-je-rard) who led the Americans with 16 points in the victory over the Soviet Union in the final; he was second on the team in scoring, behind Russell. Margie, his sweetheart from high school in Winnetka, Ill., can recite Robert's basketball history with unerring accuracy. It's as if she holds her husband's memories for safekeeping in much the same way that lockbox protects his Olympic gold.

Is there anything more valuable to a former athlete than his memory? It's what gives him comfort when there are no games left to play, allowing him to put his life on rewind whenever he chooses, revisiting his best performances, his toughest opponents, his favorite teammates. If his recall grows fuzzy sometimes that's all the better, because he can fill in the gaps as he sees fit, with his own embellishments—the older he gets, the better he used to be. But if the memory is gone completely, what then? What do you do when you realize you can hold on to the medal, but not to the moment? Maybe Robert wasn't just wandering all those times he went missing. Maybe he was searching for something he had lost.

By the second day the search had intensified, along with Margie's anxiety. Friends from the Jeangerards' church were passing out flyers and combing parks. Some of the couple's neighbors mentioned that they never knew anything of Robert's basketball accomplishments until they read about them in the news accounts of his disappearance. They were learning things about him that he probably no longer knew about himself. "He wasn't the kind to say, 'Hi, I'm Bob. I have an Olympic gold medal.' Or, 'Did I ever tell you about the time I was an usher at Bill Russell's wedding?'" Margie says. Besides, even though he chose not to embark on an NBA career, he went on to other pursuits that he was proud of, serving in the Air Force, raising two children, starting a successful tire company and studying law.

Day Three brought no news. The police, who impressed Margie with the thoroughness of their search, nonetheless admitted that they were dumbfounded by the absence of any trace of Robert. Margie began to fear the worst. If he was alive, where would he get food, shelter? Would he even accept help if it were offered? After all, he had never even acknowledged that he had Alzheimer's.

On the fourth day the call Margie had been praying for finally came from the police. Robert was in Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland, 30 miles away, on the other side of San Francisco Bay. He had been found, disoriented, in a Taco Bell parking lot by Oakland police two days earlier, but because he had been robbed he had no identification, and he could only give police his first name. When an Alta Bates nurse heard a news report on a missing man, she realized he fit the description of her unidentified patient, the one who had been wearing the baseball cap with the five Olympic rings.

How Robert spent those two days before being found will likely remain a mystery, another memory he cannot access. Most of his recollections of the game he once loved have left him for good, but there is one love he still clings to as clearly as ever, one he has never forgotten, even as the fog in his head thickens. When Margie walked into his new room at an assisted care facility and saw him for the first time since his disappearance, there was clarity in his blue eyes.

"Where have you been?" he said, his face brightening. "I've been looking for you."

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Is there anything more valuable to a former athlete than his memory? It's what gives him comfort. But if the memory is gone completely, what then?